How to restore belief in beef
After a week of horse puns, farmers and food-safety experts are infuriated by the damage to the industry and are working to mend fences
The discovery of horse meat in beef burgers was a dream story for headline writers this week. They rose to the challenge admirably, with offerings such as “Beef burger sellers are flogging a dead horse” and “Horses in courses”. The Guardian offered three thrifty horse-meat recipes from a 19th-century French cookbook, and Twitter feeds filled up with jokes about burger-eaters being in a “stable condition” after getting the trots.
But it was no laughing matter for anyone involved in the controversy. The news that the Irish meat processor Silvercrest Foods made a Tesco burger that contained 29 per cent horse meat relative to beef content is alarming for many reasons.
While there is no health risk in eating a burger that contains horse meat, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland says it raises concerns about the traceability of meat ingredients and products entering the food chain. There was nothing on the labelling of the Tesco Everyday Value burger to suggest it contained horse meat. If you could unwittingly eat horse meat in a burger, what else might you be eating?
About 150 workers at the Silvercrest Foods plant in Ballybay now find themselves with no work to do, following a suspension of production until the issue is resolved. They will continue to be paid, but it is unclear what will happen after the source of the horse meat is pinpointed. How many orders will they have to fill?
Silvercrest Foods, owned by ABP Food Group, isn’t the only company affected. Burgers from another ABP company in Britain, Dalepak Hambleton, tested positive for low traces of horse meat. And in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan, Liffey Meats also found itself in the headlines when some of its burgers were found to contain low traces of horse DNA. It quickly said the source of the contamination was imported ingredients.
This is also a blow to all meat factories here. Exports of frozen beef burgers and other uncooked processed beef were valued at €170 million in 2011, according to Bord Bia. The UK accounted for 80 per cent of these exports, and since Tuesday its residents have been hearing the words “Irish burgers” and “horse meat” in the same sentence.
Nor will it boost the sales of burgers here. We munched our way through €23.7 million worth of fresh and frozen burgers last year.
Maze from farm to fork
But focusing on the ingredients in value burgers can be only a good thing, according to craft butchers. While their stacks of plump, handmade burgers look more attractive than their frozen equivalents, they can never compete with the supermarket giants when it comes to price.
Prof Alan Reilly, the chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, says people have to ask more questions about cheaper products. “If you go into a butcher’s shop and buy one burger for €1.50 and then go into Tesco and buy eight burgers for €1.50, you’ve got to ask yourself what’s going on,” he says.